Jay Stielstra is one of the most humble, self-effacing guys you’ll ever meet. Which just goes to show that it is possible for ego and talent to co-exist in an inverse ratio. Once you hear a Stielstra song, you quickly realize that despite his aw-shucks demeanor, he’s one hell of a songwriter. Stielstra has been a fixture on the local music scene for nearly five decades, and few musicians command more respect and affection from fellow musicians and fans alike.
While he’s prolific and writes on an admirably wide range of subjects, Stielstra is most aptly described as a “Michigan songwriter.” A number of knowledgeable people, among them former Ark director Dave Siglin, have proposed that he be appointed Michigan’s poet laureate. Stielstra’s love of the state’s natural treasures shine bright in the lyrics of many of his songs. In his “Manistee River Waltz,” he sings of the river but also of a departed friend:
Will she run clear as Stolichnaya
From Yellow Trees to the Ranch
Will the beer stay cold in the Mecum Bar
When the mayflies rise to dance
Will the weather be as unpredictable
And the fishing as well the same
Will we carry on as we’ve always done
And scarcely mention his name.
This ability to seamlessly weave together personal, vivid, authentic details with the universal emotions growing out of friendship and loss gives Stielstra’s songs their particular poignancy and power. (Plus, I’m aware of no other songwriter who’s managed to smoothly work Stolichnaya into a verse!)
Following in the great tradition of Woody Guthrie, Stielstra has also channeled his frustration and anger at social injustices and the behavior of some politicians and one-percenters into hard-hitting songs with evocative lines: “Leave the bottle on the table, waiter, I ain’t finished yet.”
You can also add “playwright” to Stielstra’s resume. Since many of Stielstra’s songs are really short stories, populated with unforgettable characters, and since he works with the unifying quilt of Michigan settings, he’s been able to stitch them into a number of musical plays, including North Country Opera and Tittabawassee Jane. Like his songs, these plays have earned loyal audiences throughout Michigan.
Stielstra has always attracted great backing musicians . For his concert at the Ark on November 12, he’ll be accompanied by Judy Banker, who’s played guitar and sung harmony vocals with him for years, and Dave Roof, one of the most sought-after bassists on the local scene. Fiddler Mary Seelhorst, longtime member of Bill Bynum’s band, and harmonica wizard Peter “Madcat” Ruth will also join the band. Stielstra’s longtime friend and fellow carpenter, Chris Buhalis, who is perhaps one of the finest interpreters of Stielstra’s songs, will open the show.